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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Eliminate tenure and it gets a little chilly at school

Without tenure, every teacher is the pawn and puppet of whoever happens to be the most powerful person in the building today. Without tenure, anybody can shoulder his way into the classroom and declare, ‘You're going to do things my way, or else.’

That’s from the wonderful blog Curmudgucation, written by Peter Greene [if you’re appalled by the attacks on public education that pass for reform these days, you really should follow his blog].  His point is that tenure gives teachers the freedom to do their jobs right, without the threat of dismissal hanging over their heads.

This reminded me of an incident related to me by a math teacher I know. I’m sharing it because I think it illustrates perfectly how tenure’s guarantee of due process empowers good teachers to do the right thing.

The state of New Jersey had recently introduced a required algebra test, and the administration in our district hadn’t been very pleased with the results. So they decided to bring a consultant into the high school to make recommendations on boosting the test scores. The thing is, many students don’t take algebra in high school, where it’s a ninth-grade course. Some take it in middle school. In fact, in our district, many students take algebra in eighth grade, and a smaller number in seventh.

So the consultant came in, did his thing, and presented his recommendations to the high school. But the district, presumably in an effort to get its money’s worth out of this consultant, decided that his recommendations should be adopted in the middle school as well. So the fellow was duly trotted out at a meeting of the middle school math faculty, where  he proceeded to repeat his dog and pony show.

The thing is, there’s one obvious difference between teaching algebra in high school and teaching it in middle school. Generally, kids taking algebra in ninth grade are not the strongest math students; kids taking it in middle school are. This math teacher, who’d been teaching the middle school’s top math students for years, was appalled by the recommendations being offered. It was obvious to a teacher with a wealth of experience that the methods being proposed would be a real turn-off to strong math students who learn the subject more quickly and easily.

So the teacher spoke up and forcefully challenged the recommendations – persuasively enough so that they were not adopted in the middle school.

“Good thing I have tenure,” the teacher added as the story drew to a close. “I would never have spoken up otherwise.”

This little tale is the perfect illustration of tenure’s role in the delicate public school ecosystem. On one side, you have an administration that’s understandably concerned with the results on a state-mandated test. They decide to throw some money at the problem in the form of a paid outside consultant, who may or may not have some great ideas on improving algebra performance in high school. But once the decision has been made to spend money, the administrators seek to maximize the return on their dollar, as administrators are wont to do. They assume that they’ve purchased a one-size-fits-all solution, and the more widely it’s implemented, the greater their test-points-per-dollar return on investment. After all, algebra is algebra, right?

Enter the classroom teacher, who has taught algebra to enough different groups of students to realize that, while algebra is algebra, not every student learns algebra the same way. The solution being imposed from on high is not one-size-fits-all and will be a disaster in the honors and accelerated math classrooms at the middle school, into which kids have been placed precisely because they are adept math learners.

With tenure, that teacher can take a chance. Pushing back on administrators is risky business, after all. It’s not easy to tell the boss he’s wrong. But with the knowledge that respectful dissent cannot be a firing offense – because of tenure – the teacher can go out on a limb, challenge the powers that be, and make the case against adopting a pedagogical strategy doomed to fail.

But without tenure, the teacher sitting in the back of the room at that meeting has to wonder: “Is it worth risking my job to fight this? Clearly, the principal and superintendent are already convinced that this is the way to go. If they wanted the teachers’ opinions, they would have asked us. Maybe I can change their minds. But what if I can’t? What if my opposition is taken as insubordination? Do I really want to take that chance?”

That’s the chilling effect of job insecurity. Without tenure, the voice of the experienced teacher is muffled; kids lose out.

The obvious objection is going to be, “But that’s how it works everywhere else. In most workplaces, people don’t have a guarantee of a high level of due process. Why should schools be any different?”

The answer, of course, is that not all jobs are created equal. If your business makes widgets, and some consultant recommends a stupid change to the process, the chilling effect will at worst result in the business’s diminished profitability. So what? If the company chooses to keep in management someone who takes bad advice and creates a climate where employees are afraid to speak up, so be it. If they eventually go out of business because of their unresponsive management style, someone else will make widgets.

But – let’s say it all together, now – children are not widgets. We can't just flush this batch and hope to do better with the next one. For their sake, the bar must be set higher. Tenure is part of the checks-and-balances system that allows teachers in the classrooms to be assertive advocates for good pedagogical practices. It’s no guarantee – and yes, tenure might sometimes serve as an obstacle [though not an insurmountable one] to dismissing a bad teacher. But tenure can be modified to streamline the dismissal process for the small percentage of bad teachers. Abolishing tenure outright, on the other hand, would silence all teachers.

This cool illustration comes from here.